Sunday, 3 February 2013

A call for a bit of perspective in language policing

    It was interesting to watch the British journalist Laurie Penny last week. She used the word "Lunatic" in a piece about misogynistic abuse of women online and in doing so inadvertently offended some people. For some sufferers of mental illness, the word is a slur.
    To her credit, she responded immediately with an eloquent apology. Ms. Moore and Ms. Burchill could learn from her example. She may at times be a typical product of the left-wing London-centric media bubble into which she was admitted straight from university, but it seems she hasn't quite yet been sucked into it enough to consider herself infallible.
    Personally I think she got it right to apologise because though the word "lunatic" is a rather archaic in a pure mental health sense it is still within living memory. When I was young our local mental hospital was informally referred to locally as "The loony bin" for instance, so it's entirely understandable that for some the word is still a slur.
    But here's the problem. Words change their meanings over time, and "lunatic" has acquired some non-offensive senses in common speech. I'm guessing that through being painfully right-on Ms. Penny is more aware of offensive words than most people, and her considering it acceptable to use was not entirely unreasonable in the context of those senses.
    There was a good parallel example of a language shift causing controversy on Radio 1 back in 2006. The DJ Chris Moyles described a ringtone as "gay" which prompted calls of homophobia, yet he was simply found to have been using the newer sense of "gay"; "Foolish, stupid or unimpressive". Reach your own conclusions about Chris Moyles' general misogyny or homophobia, but here this was probably linguistically correct. You don't have to spent long in the company of someone young enough to be a Radio 1 listener to gather that this sense of "gay" is not used in a homophobic context however annoying it may be. It's not impossible to conceive that this sense of the word might even become the dominant one in future decades.
    The BBC programme complaints committee reported on the Moyles incident thus: "The word 'gay', in addition to being used to mean 'homosexual' or 'carefree', was often now used to mean 'lame' or 'rubbish'". The irony of their using "lame", in itself seen by some as a piece of ablist language, would probably be as lost on them as that of the annoyance to the older generation at the use of "gay" as a synonym for "homosexual".
    Highlighting the use of inappropriate language will unfortunately be necessary as long as there are unpleasant people who will push the boundaries of its use. But I can't help feeling that sometimes those who do it can be a little too zealous in their pursuit and often do more harm than good. For the best example of this we should look no further than the multiple controversies surrounding the word "niggardly" in academic speech. It is simply a word which sounds like an offensive one, it has no sense related to the word it sounds like and it was in no way offensive in meaning. Yet the controversies have given new life to what was a rather archaic and rare word, and an entirely new sense as a dog-whistle word used by racists who wish to enrage others with the use of a 'non-racist' word. Well done, language police! (slow hand clap)
     I feel there is a lesson here that everyone can learn ( Especially some people rather close to home who should know better! ). If I take offence at something, I should consider for a moment the nature of what I am taking offence at. Is it something anyone like me would find offensive or am I in a minority of one? Is the word being used in an offensive sense, or indeed is it even an offensive word in the first place? Careful consideration of both those questions before complaining would I think lead to a much better targeted and more effective management of the use of offensive language and far less of a sense of crying wolf. If an archaic or marginally offensive word acquires a new, non-offensive sense that is to be celebrated and encouraged, for that is the way that offensive senses become forgotten (See the early etymology of 'nice' for a good example.). By attempting to halt this process when it is already under way we risk two things: breathing new life into the offensive sense, and simply alienating people whose use of the new sense is entirely innocent. We want people to use language in a particular way because they see it as the right thing to do, not because they have been told to use it in that way which they then resent.


  1. Nice post! language is a continually evolving mess of a thing, ours having words stolen from all over the place. Also one of the biggest things seems to be context, as you were saying regarding Chris Moyles.
    hope your day is a good one =)

  2. I'm not sure that I agree with the Chris Moyles thing. He does like causing offence - it's what he built his career on.

    And saying that using 'gay' to describe something as rubbish is a new thing is incorrect - back in the 80's it was used in that way (at least people used it that way in the neighbourhood where I grew up). And it is (I don't believe that has changed that much in the in-between time) a direct reference to homosexuality.

    On the other hand, I agree with the overall post. I must admit that in the course of my transition I have had jokes made, but then we do that for everyone and as long as it was not something said with a plain nasty inflection or just plain offensiveness (which thankfully I didn't get), I just gave back as good as I got. And it made everything so much easier than if I had reported the comments that could be taken as transphobic.


  3. Thanks both :)

    The point with the Moyles decision was not one about his general offensiveness but the specific sense he used in that sentence. In that case they probably got it right, but considering the rest of his demeanour he does have an air of getting away with it, doesn't he.

    1. I have a question...

      Why is that incredibly negative use of the word gay viewed as OK acceptable, and yet comparing female perfection to Brazilian transsexuals not?

      Whether it is a common use should be neither here nor there, personally I think it's incredibly offensive to label something bad as 'gay'.

    2. Good question. The answer I think lies in the fact that one is a question of insensitvity in language, the other in insensitivity in context.

      Whether we find it offensive or not, Moyles' use of "gay" simply reflected common usage which has nothing to do with homosexuality. I wouldn't use that sense,but you can't escape that it's everywhere.

      Moore's "Brazilian" remark by contrast wasn't offensive language. It was insensitive given the plight of Brazilian trans people, but not offensive in itself. The people who highlighted it then were annoyed with the insensitivity rather than trying to police language. What followed from both Moore & Burchill however was an entirely different matter as they descended quickly into offensive language.

    3. Oh what followed was disgusting - that's why I wanted to stay on the original remark.

      I've been out of the UK for too long maybe, but I cannot split references to homosexuality from Moyles comment - or the way that it is used in general language. I would not be surprised to hear that the people who use it are also completely homophobic.

  4. I suppose the use of words like dolt, imbecile, idiot fool, clown will come under the same scrutiny. We use words to describe what we want to say and as Jessica points out language is an ever changing and evolving thing. Some folk therefore may be out of touch with the latest meaning and use of any particular word. When I was young (too long ago) I almost never used the word 'gay' except in the context of it's original meaning. I think it was in the 60's that I first learned it had a newer meaning which now has become the more popular. It is a surprise to me to learn that it also is used to mean 'rubbish' as Stace points out and has been used in that context for around 30 years. Perhaps it is colloquial thing only used locally. I think you will find that is often the case, words used in different meaning and context dependent on your locality. I digress. Again, as Jessica says, it is all about context and intended meaning. I am not conversant with Chris Moyles' radio broadcasts as I don't listen much to Radio 1 but from what you infer it could be that what he says is filled with innuendo leaving you to decide what he really was saying or maybe he presented that way to disguise his real feelings.

    Shirley Anne x

  5. Gay can mean 'rubbishy'? That's completely new to me! Surely it's a young-generation word like 'pants' was a few years back, that older people use at peril of getting it ludicrously wrong.

    Like Shirley Anne, I'm old enough to have used 'gay' in its old senses of 'joyous, colourful, happy' right into early adulthood, when I became aware that it now had a major new meaning, and couldn't be used any more in ordinary conversation. I rather think this even newer meaning is an oblique reference to 'homosexual gayness' seeming a social/sexual/cultural dead end to some right-wing people (though not me, I hasten to say, before I get flamed).

    Language has a life of its own, and attitudes to words need to change with the words themselves. Unfortunately a lot of people think that dictionary definitions are fixed for all time. They are not. They lag behind. Meanwhile the essential thing is surely to use words suitable for the intended readership or audience, and to place clarity before trendiness.


  6. yes teenagers do use "Gay" that way, I occasionally find myself surprised at what my teenage daughter and her friends say because they use words differently to me, but wasn't it always thus?

    We have a couple of distinct different situations here, the accidental, incidental offense caused by careless use of language, and the deliberately offensive, I think they are quite easy to tell apart. But there is a third way (sorry Mr Blair) the way we casually use language can influence the way we and others think, examples ~ Spastic used to be a medical term, The Spastics Society was formed to assist people with Cerebral Palsy their parents and carers, in the 90's TSS became Scope reflecting a change in attitude and object of the organisation, media attention focused on losing the "offensive" term Spastic. If we talk about disabled people we focus on the disability, instead talk about people with a disability and we focus on the person. We think in language so the language we use will influence the way we think.

  7. Some people rely on using such words to provoke a reaction as their stock in trade, Germaine Greer and Ricky Gervaise (sp?) spring to mind while Moyles was more unintentionally coarse and increasingly out of step with the station that employed him and its playlist.